I was 37 years old when my son left for college, creating a hole in my life. On a whim, I bought a book called Pie.
Week after week, I picked a new recipe from among the book’s over 300 and learned through trial and error. The practice of rubbing butter or shortening between my fingers, incorporating it evenly through the flour, achieving that just-right texture, grounded me and gave me purpose.
I made a Wild Blueberry Lattice pie that earned rave reviews.
I learned that a good crust is what makes a perfect pie. It must be tender and flaky. It must possess the structural integrity needed to hold the filling in place from the tin to the plate.
You must keep the water ice cold. Start by filling a small glass bowl with ice cubes, covering them with cold water.
The rolling pin in my hands smooths the dough into a ruffled rectangle. I move quickly, not wanting the pastry to have time to warm or dry. The tension in my shoulders eases with the motion.
When baking in the oven, the fat in the crust melts, leaving behind layers of pockets. It is this that creates the flakes. Grown men get a faraway look when they taste those flakes and will sometimes tell you stories about their beloved grandmothers.
When my husband asked for a divorce, he dusted over his guilt with a spreadsheet of my faults. Among them he listed pie. He said, “Things were fine, and then it became all about pie.” He was jealous of the attention I gained from a well-turned-out crust, a not too tart, not too sweet filling, the moans of pleasure from my fans as they tasted my gifts.
I find cream pies the most difficult. One must whisk the liquid constantly, ignoring the heat from the stovetop, the fatigue, the muscle cramps, until at last, the cream thickens. Like a cream pie, a meringue also requires time and attention, beating egg whites into stiff peaks without over beating. Letting the meringue sit under the broiler for mere seconds, watching vigilantly so it doesn’t burn.
Once, before I learned how long it really takes to make a cream pie, I made a banana cream that never set. It slopped onto the floor when I carried it from the refrigerator to the table. We ate it anyway, with spoons.
Some prefer a crumb crust for a peanut butter, a key lime, or other icebox pies. They require less skill, the crust less showy than the pastry crust, but the scent of a graham cracker crumb-and-butter crust baking in the oven can make even the most anorexic teen girl drift toward the kitchen.
Last year, a friend of hers sexually assaulted my teenaged stepdaughter. She told her mother. Her mother said, “Sometimes boys get carried away,” and “if you hadn’t put yourself in that situation, this wouldn’t have happened.”
Twenty-four hours after she told her mother, my stepdaughter told me about the assault. I took her to the hospital where doctors performed a forensic exam. That night, after she went back to her mother’s house, I fell apart. Shaking, I drank myself sick. Sometimes pie doesn’t cut it.
Booze in a filling is invariably a winner. A competitor in bake-offs, I’ve seen the power of a bourbon cream, a spiked apple. My chocolate town (a cookie-like filling with pecans and chocolate chips) becomes festive with glugs of Jack Daniels. A heavy hand can ruin the overall effect. Save the generous pour for the glass.
I have won blue ribbons for two of my pies; the butterscotch pecan and the peaches and cream. During the holidays, I bake dozens of butterscotch pecan pies as gifts for the clients of my small consulting business. My home fills with the rich, sweet scent. My new husband tells people he married me for my pie and begs me to make one just for him. I do.
Marijean Oldham is a public relations consultant and writer. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, the Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review, and Burningword Literary Journal. An essay is forthcoming in the February 2021 edition of The Lindenwood Journal. In 2018, Marijean authored the book 100 Things to Do in Charlottesville Before You Die, Second Edition (2018 Reedy Press). In 2003, Marijean set a Guinness Book World Record for creating the largest bouquet of flowers.